Carbon Monoxide Big Part of Tenant Safety

A landlord’s responsibility for tenant safety must include ongoing professional maintenance of furnaces, hot water heaters and boilers and functioning carbon monoxide alarms.

By Rebecca Martin

This week a family of four survived a deadly carbon monoxide poisoning in a College Park, Georgia apartment. The College View Hills Apartments is owned and managed by a Public Housing Authority. It is made up of 104 buildings consisting of 2 high rise apartments with elevator service, 71 townhouses, 26 multifamily duplex/triplex and 1 multifamily unit with ground-level entrance.

Temyka Ollie and three of her children, aged 6 to 17, had been experiencing numerous complaints prior to the incident which occurred this week in College Park.

tenant safety in public housing

Tenant safety must be a higher priority in public housing, which must include ongoing professional maintenance of furnaces, hot water heaters and boilers and functioning carbon monoxide alarms.

According to Atlanta News First , Ollie had reported a gas leak to the city’s housing authority after her children had found her unconscious in the apartment. Ollie was hospitalized at the time and informed that the stove in her apartment would be replaced and that the furnace would be repaired or replaced. But that was not the end of the problems.

Her family continued to experience health issues even after the repairs were made. Ollie experienced a stroke and her children had multiple problems including seizures and respiratory issues.[1] Finally, on Wednesday, August 23, Ollie was informed by her physician that high quantities of carbon monoxide were found in her blood. She immediately spoke with the Housing Authority. The gas company was notified, and the gas was shut off while they determined if there was a problem.

Maintenance informed her that she just needed to open the windows and let some fresh air in, but that it was safe to remain in the apartment. With no formal evacuation, tenants were left with little choice but to remain in their apartments despite misgivings on their part.

The following morning, Ollie and her children woke up vomiting and unable to breathe. Although there was carbon monoxide detector in the apartment, Ollie reported that it was not functioning correctly. Ollie and her children were hospitalized, leaving Ollie to ask why no one from the housing authority had called to apologize for putting her family at risk. Ollie is afraid to return to the unit with her family and is hoping a safer unit can be located for her and her children.

In our experience, CO survivors who are poisoned on multiple occasions, like it appears Ollie and her family were, are at the highest risk for permanent brain damage. Much like have two concussions in short succession, getting two doses of CO in short succession significantly increases the likelihood of permanent brain damage. For more on brain damage after CO poisoining, click here. 

The Housing Authority said the incident was under investigation.

“On January 31, 2022, HUD issued a notice (PIH Notice 2022-01), announcing that HUD will enforce the installation of carbon monoxide alarms or detectors in HUD-assisted housing by December 27, 2022.”,housing%20by%20December%2027%2C%202022.

This requirement to advance tenant safety came into effect due to a number of fatal and non-fatal incidents in HUD-assisted housing projects. NBC News had run an expose consisting of several parts in 2019 entitled Silent Killer: Carbon Monoxide Poisoning in Public Housing, uncovering a lack of carbon monoxide safety in properties run by the federal government. They found that since 2003, 13 people had been killed by carbon monoxide poisoning in public housing and out of that 13, 10 were African American.  Public Housing residents are often those most vulnerable such as infants, young children, and the elderly.

Tenant Safety includes Functioning Carbon Monoxide Alarms

Even though the government has moved forward with carbon monoxide detector requirements, we are still faced with incidents like the one in College Park, Georgia, in which there was a detector present, but it was reported to not be functioning correctly.  While we can debate whose responsibility it is to make sure a detector is functioning properly, there is still the huge issue of accountability for carrying out repairs and replacements in a manner which insures the health and safety of tenants. There is also the tenant safety issue in ensuring familiarity with carbon monoxide hazards and protocols to employ when carbon monoxide is suspected.  Advising a family that it is safe to open windows and remain in the premises is not an appropriate response to an issue serious enough to be medically confirmed by a physician. It is fortunate that this family ended up in the hospital and not in a morgue.

Never Delay Evacuation to Open Windows

Evacuation serves more than one purpose. It provides an immediate relief from continued exposure and sets in motion alternative housing options while the source of the problem is located and repaired or replaced.  The advice to “open a window” can leave a family in an impossible situation of it being unsafe to remain but without an option to relocate.

In 2019, two men, who resided in separate apartments at Allen Benedict Court in Columbia, SC, died of carbon monoxide poisoning. The Columbia Housing Authority which managed the Allen Benedict housing project had been inundated with complaints and problems for some time before the deaths occurred. The building was eventually demolished in 2021 and new housing was planned.  Construction was originally slated to begin this month with a projected completion by December 2024. It has now been projected to reach completion by August 2025.

Public Housing and tenant safety will be a topic ongoing. It really exemplifies the need for a team approach to a solution. The presence of responsive and capable maintenance, proper safety protocols and functioning carbon monoxide detectors are not to be taken for granted.

[1] While we do not have access to the medical records, it is highly likely that what was called a stroke was in fact ischemic damage from the carbon monoxide poisoning. While a heart attack is commonly caused by carbon monoxide poisoning, having a stroke during a period that someone is being poisoned is unlikely. It is more likely that the medical diagnostic team didn’t consider the possibility of CO and misdiagnosed severe damage to the brain as related to stroke. Both stroke and CO poisoning will show up as abnormal on an often administered MRI protocol called diffusion weighted imaging. (For diffusion weighted imaging to be abnormal, the MRI must administered within a few days of the event.) If CO is not part of the differential diagnosis, the neuroradiologist could attribute abnormalities to stroke, even though they might have an atypical pattern for stroke.

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